Tape Delay

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The sun was setting behind the only patch of clouds on an otherwise perfectly blue sky. The sun’s rays shone down in beautiful, golden stripes. It would have been absolutely picturesque, a paradise on earth, if it wasn’t also 110 degrees outside.

Michael stepped out of his car and shook his shirt in a futile attempt to blow some breeze up his sweaty torso. Though he had functioning air conditioning, he had no covered parking at his job and had to leave it sitting, broiling in the sun for 8-and-a-half hours.   Earlier in the week he had seen a news report with one of the field reporters baking a tray of cookies inside the cab of a car at 3 pm, when the heat reached its peak.

He climbed the side of the porch and used the decorative column to pull himself up instead of walking around and using the steps, to save him all of five seconds of on-foot travel time. It also kept him feeling young, he figured. The mailbox was outside, to the right of the door. Sunlight was cast on it directly and looking at it shone right into his eyes and burned those green blobs onto his retinas that he could see when he blinked. The lid to it was hot and he handled it with just the tips of his fingers, gingerly avoiding having it made contact with the back of his hand and leave a red line burned onto it like a branding: Now property of your own mail box.

A bunch of junk, he thought, looking at the mail that awaited him. There was a flyer to a grocery store he never went to, coupons for a fast food joint he’d never heard of that apparently delivered late but, as he reached down further, he felt his hand touch upon a soft package with something hard inside. The lip of the mailbox was touching the middle of his forearm and he yanked his hand away with the package in hand, the junk mail in his other hand.

Fuck,” He hissed, shaking his hand, rubbing the burn on his arm.

It was an unmarked piece of postage, wrapped in a bubble padded envelope. Only Michael’s name and address was on it, no return sender and it had never been stamped. So, someone had delivered it personally and stuffed it in his mail.

Michael’s house was stuffy inside. It smelled hot and the crumpled dirty socks he left on his bedroom floor didn’t help any. He’d had the air on all day, but in an effort to save money, left it at 85 degrees. He tossed his keys and the mail on the same table and immediately cranked the air conditioning. His window unit didn’t do much unless you were standing directly in front of the vent.  He put his nose right up to the manufactured breeze and rotated his face slowly, feeling the cold air blow over his sweaty face and through his hair. He lifted up his shirt and let it blow on his stomach and chest.

He was suddenly very aware of his soft-core pornographic posturing and had the feeling that he was being watched. He dismissed the thought as silly, but all the same lowered his shirt and collapsed onto his small couch.

It was a small house, something that maybe seemed like a good idea when it was being designed, but in actual practice it was bizarre. It didn’t have rooms. It was almost like a studio apartment, but it was a single-standing house. The bedroom and living room were separated by a large opening that he’d decorated with a bead curtain, but there was no door, nor had there ever been plans for a door in the first place. The bathroom was located inside the bedroom, such as it was, and the only thing diving it and the toilet from the bedroom was a thin partition on a sliding track. On the rare occasions he had company over, using the toilet was a nightmare. Music had to be played to obscure the sounds because nothing was left to the imagination. Michael could hear everything to the smallest detail, right down to hearing someone’s pants sliding down their thighs and their butt making contact with the seat.

Without realizing it, he’d fallen asleep on the couch. He woke up about 20 minutes later when he could hear himself snoring. He heard something else, too, something that sounded like floorboards creaking underfoot, but it was an old house and old houses moan and groan. He bolted up with a snort and wiped a hand across his chin to remove the drool that had collected there.

He spent a minute gathering his thoughts and rubbing his eyes, feeling himself awaken to the world. He let out a yawn from deep within and impatiently pattered his feet back and forth. From the corner of his eye, the mysterious package he received burned  his peripherals. Rather than standing up, he lazily reached across toward the table from where he was comfortably seated and grabbed the padded envelope and turned it in his hands to examine it.

He wondered who the hell sent it, but most importantly, he wondered what the hell was inside. He tore open the side of the package and inside was an unlabeled, black VHS tape. Sorta like a porno tape back in the 90s, Michael thought.

Next to his TV set was a VCR-DVD player combo that his mom had bought for him from Target close to ten years ago when he was a freshman in college. And it still worked. The DVD part didn’t, the laser burnt out or something, but the VCR was in perfect condition. Atop the VCR-DVD was a functional DVD player and on top of that was a Blu-Ray player. It didn’t matter that the middle DVD player was totally superfluous; he was too lazy to disconnect it and donate it to Goodwill.

Finally gathering the energy to stand up, he slid the tape into the mouth of the VCR and hit play. Garbled static and white noise filled the screen for about ten seconds and then slowly began to dissolve into something he could barely make out. He leaned in from where he was sitting to see it better. He recognized certain elements. He saw that it was a solitary shot from a single position from up high looking down on a room, like security camera footage, filmed in suitable black & white. Slowly, the static and imperfections of the tape began to smooth out and he could see more and more details. It was a living room in a house and there was someone sitting on a couch.

Oh, my god, Michael thought. It’s me!

He found himself looking at himself and wondered how old this footage was. How did someone get into his house? How did someone get into his goddamn house? He saw himself on his television look around the room rapidly. Michael leaned in closer and put his hand over his chest to help calm his beating heart.

Wait, he thought. Hadn’t he seen himself do the exact same thing on the TV?

The Michael-on-TV let out a silent gasp and cupped his hand to his mouth and reeled backward on his seat, with his back now against the couch. Quickly, a tall man dressed all in black pulled Michael-on-TV backward and raked a long butcher knife across his throat. Michael-on-TV gurgled and let out a strangled, strained scream and fell to the floor. The man dressed all in black looked up directly to where the camera was and his lips curled over his teeth in a strained effort of a smile. His eyes were small and shone like pieces of glass at night. The Michael-on-TV reached toward something with a weak, trembling arm.

Michael gasped at what he saw, horrified, and clasped his sweating palm over his mouth. He felt the urine in his bladder flow to the tip of his penis, on the verge of spilling over.

Michael felt a cold blade of metal touch and make contact with his throat, then push in, severing his trachea and leaving him unable to scream or make noise, except for strained wheezing with blood bubbling out of the opened mouth that used to be his Adam’s apple. He could feel the knife’s blade move up, just under his jawbone and saw back and forth, like a serrated edge on a loaf of bread. He collapsed to the ground and reached out toward the flickering, prophetic violence on his television. He could feel the life draining out of his neck, leaving a red pool beneath him.

He looked up and the last thing that he saw before the world went black was his own likeness on the television slump over and die.

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